We all like to think we’d be the very face of implacable calm in the face of disaster. At the very least, if faced with certain death, we like to think we’d face it with dignity, or perhaps a kind of defiant resignation—but certainly not abject terror and sheer panic, because we are fully grown adults who– oh, fine. Nobody wants to die, but absolutely nobody wants to die under nightmarish, out-of-control, excruciatingly painful circumstances. But like those on our previous list, the following people did more than just stare down death with courage under just such circumstances—they stared it down until it backed right off, and then they walked away.
10 Joan Murray
Fell 14,500 Feet Onto Mound Of Fire Ants
You may think we slipped that subheader in there just to see if you were paying attention, and that we’ve been watching too many Road Runner cartoons. Well, here are the facts. In September of 1999, 47-year-old Joan Murray experienced failure of her main chute during a skydive from over 4,400 meters (14,500 ft). By the time she got her reserve chute to deploy, she was less than 305 meters (1,000 ft) from the ground. She spun out of control, her reserve chute lost most of its air volume, and she smacked into the ground traveling at 129 kph (80 mph), landing directly on a large fire ant mound.
Joan broke most of the bones in her entire right side, and fillings shot from her teeth upon impact; yet she somehow was alive, though unconscious. The whole situation didn’t go over well with the fire ants. Joan was bitten over 200 times before paramedics were able to assist her. Incredibly, her doctors (one of whom scrawled “miracle” on her chart) think the ant bites may have aided in Joan’s survival by causing an extreme adrenaline response. Several years, and more than 20 reconstructive surgeries and countless physical therapy sessions later, Joan returned to work, life, and skydiving—taking her 37th dive in 2002.
9 Louis Nell
Attacked By Two Pit Bulls
At first, it was just a dog owner’s worst nightmare: Louis Nell’s golden retriever, Chrissy, was being attacked in their home by two aggressive pit bulls that had come out of nowhere. Then Louis made an attempt to defend his dog, and it quickly turned into a situation that could have spelled the end for Louis himself.
The pit bulls, the dogs of one of Louis’s neighbors, had burst in through their screen door and set upon Chrissy before anyone knew what was happening. His wife, Linda, frantically dialed police as Louis fought with the animals “for a good five to 10 minutes,” sustaining a profusely bleeding bite on one hand after he toppled over while trying to pin one of the dogs beneath a chair.
Fortunately, police arrived quickly and shot one of the dogs dead on the scene (the other was later euthanized). Chrissy was killed in the attack. “They tore her throat completely open,” said Linda. But if not for Louis’s bravery and the quick response of police, it could have turned out much, much worse.
8 Geary And Suzan Whaley
Picked Up By A Tornado
In late May 2013, a series of tornadoes rocked the central United States; Oklahoma, it could be argued, took the worst of it. On May 20, a twister that devastated the town of Moore killed 24 people. By May 31, nine more had died as multiple twisters tore across central Oklahoma. One of these tornadoes, an E4 tornado—the second-most powerful rating, was sighted near the town of Shawnee by husband and wife Geary and Suzan Whaley as they were heading home on the highway. They don’t remember much else about the rest of the day, but investigators think they tried to pull under an overpass (bad idea), where the twister met them, picking up their truck and sucking them both right out the windows.
Suzan had been shooting video of the twister on her cell phone when it struck, and it continued shooting through the entire incident. She says she can barely remember waking up on the ground, cell phone still in hand, her husband missing. She found him over 15.2 meters (50 ft) away, with about a dozen broken bones but somehow still alive. They now know that the structure of an underpass can amplify a tornado’s winds, but hopefully it’s knowledge they won’t need to use again. Amazingly, their dog Rocky was also with them at the time and went missing afterward . . . until he was found four days later, trapped under some debris and also alive.
7 Theresa Christian
Locked In A Freezer For 5 Days
Yes, twisters are to be avoided at all costs . . . well, almost. For the claustrophobic among us, here’s an example of how some methods of protecting yourself from a tornado can potentially turn even scarier than the tornado itself. Investigators believe Theresa Christian, 59 at the time, was attempting to take shelter in a deep freezer when she accidentally locked herself inside. And she remained there for five days.
Unbelievably, her sons dropped by on day four and turned over the apartment, calling their mother’s name, to no avail. On Wednesday, they and an apartment maintenance crew returned. This time, Theresa’s son Stewart heard a very faint cry for help. They discovered her sitting upright, conscious, inside the deep freezer—which was itself inside a closet. The lid was cracked, but she was unable to move. She had severe frostbite on her legs and was hospitalized in serious condition. Oddly, no inclement weather was forecasted for the area at the time—it’s just the only explanation authorities could come up with, and Ms. Christian wasn’t talking.
6 Janis Ollson
Cut In Half For Cancer Treatment
A diagnosis of cancer is never good, but Janis Ollson’s diagnosis was of the type that would make most people simply crumble. There was cancerous bone tissue in the middle of her pelvis, and doctors told her that her only option was essentially to be disassembled to get at the problem area, then put her back together again like a puzzle. She would lose her left leg, and her right would have to be . . . well . . . totally detached during the procedure. And they weren’t sure if they would be able to reattach it.
Basically, the surgery involved cutting Janis Ollson in two, and it was her only hope. Despite the procedure never having been attempted on a living patient, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota were willing to give it a shot. Since the treatment would leave “no bony continuity between her torso and her remaining leg” (in the words of Dr. Michael Yaszemski, who originated the treatment), bone from her amputated left leg was used to reattach the right, closer to her spine in the center of her body. Over two surgeries of 28 hours, with 240 staples used to piece Janis together, the groundbreaking procedure was done—and it was successful. Obviously, there was incredibly demanding rehabilitation, and lots of it, required. And Janis requires a bit of hardware to get around, but she isn’t complaining. Since her lifesaving treatment, it has been attempted on three other patients—two of whom died.
5 Rita Chretien
Stranded In Wilderness For 7 Weeks
Rita Chretien and her husband, Albert, set out for Las Vegas from their home in British Columbia in their van in March 2011. She would later tell journalists that the couple had little experience on such a trip, and they were relying on their GPS to guide them accurately. On March 20, their van became bogged down in the snowy Nevada wilderness, unable to go any further. There it remained until May 6, when it was found by hunters on ATVs. The search had been on since March 30, when they had been expected home by their children. May 6 was the very day, Rita said, that she felt the last of her energy slipping away after surviving on a small amount of trail mix and hard candy for the past 49 days. When she heard the hunters’ engines, she had just laid down to prepare to die.
Albert had set out for help two days after the van became stuck, but he unfortunately did not get anywhere near it—he was over eight kilometers (five miles) from the nearest town when his frozen body was finally found in late September 2012. He had, however, made it roughly the same distance from the van, a valiant effort in unforgiving conditions. Sheriff’s Deputy David Prall said, “Once he [Albert] lost the ability to use that GPS, due to the snow drifts, he couldn’t tell where the road was. He did a lot of unnecessary climbing. He was heading literally for the summit of the mountain . . . where he made it to was far beyond what he was equipped for . . . this man had tremendous courage and inner strength to get where he was.”
4 Randal McCloy Jr.
Trapped By Sago Mine Explosion
On January 2, 2006, an explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia trapped 13 miners for two days. According to Randal McCloy Jr.—the only one of them to make it out alive—at least four of the miners’ emergency breathing devices failed. And that was only the nail in their coffin, as many oversights were eventually found to have contributed to the blast.
For one, McCloy also reported after his rescue that about three weeks prior to the incident, he and a coworker had come upon a pocket of methane—which, for the record, is explosive—while drilling in the roof of the mine. After reporting this, they found the next day that the leak they had reported had been plugged up with glue used for sealing bolts in the mine walls. And that was the last they heard of it.
McCloy came very close to the same fate as all of his coworkers—death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Even with all of the emergency breathing devices functioning, his survival would have been improbable. They provide an hour’s worth of oxygen, and help did not arrive until 41 hours after the explosion. Unbelievably, some news outlets reported erroneously during the incident that one miner had died and 12 had been rescued, prompting relief from a dozen families whose hearts were broken when the numbers were reversed just hours later.
3 Regan Martin
Abducted By A Serial Killer
David Alan Gore was a rapist and serial killer who was active in the late ’70s and early ’80s in the United States. He was executed for his crimes in 2012, and his accomplice Fred Waterfield was sentenced to consecutive life sentences in prison. In all, Gore killed six women. He and Waterfield abducted their final two victims on July 26, 1983. They were 14-year-old Regan Martin and 17-year-old Lynn Elliott, and it’s a day Regan will never forget: She’s the only one of Gore’s victims to survive.
It began when Gore and Waterfield picked the girls up at the beach, planning to bring any who were willing to go back to Gore’s parents house (they were out of town) and rape them. After getting Martin and Elliott in the car, the glove box popped open, revealing a .22 pistol, which Gore used to threaten Martin. At first taking it for a joke, it quickly became apparent that it was not. They were taken to the house, where both were sexually assaulted.
In all likelihood, Elliott saved Martin’s life—and sacrificed her own—by attempting to escape. While Gore was assaulting Martin, Elliott slipped out of the house, naked and handcuffed, and was running down the driveway when Gore spotted her, having heard the door. He shot Elliott in the head in full view of a child witness, and it was her murder that he was convicted of and sentenced to die for in 1984. The witness called police, who were able to arrive in time to rescue Martin.
2 Anna Hjelle
Attacked By A Mountain Lion
Mountain lions are notoriously territorial animals. The one that attacked 30-year-old ex-Marine Anna Hjelle in 2007 had killed before—in fact, it had killed another victim earlier that day—and it was going for seconds. Anna had been mountain biking in the wrong place, and if not for the quick thinking and immense bravery of her friend Debi Nicholls, she would likely not be here to tell her story.
Debby refused to let go of Anna’s legs as the giant cat was attempting to drag Anna by her face into the wilderness. Anna remained conscious throughout, and distinctly remembers thinking that she should really just die. “You think about the fact that your face is ripped off,” she said. And roughly half of it was. Two more bikers heard screaming and came to help, fending off the lion with rocks while Debby held on. The lion eventually acquiesced, and the men carried Anna up the trailhead while continuing to be stalked by the lion.
Police shot the big cat as it was hovering near the body of Mark Reynolds, whom it had killed and partially eaten earlier in the day. Anna was airlifted to an Orange County hospital, where she received some 2,000 stitches over five hours of surgery.
1 Eugene Han And Kirstin Davis
Shot In Colorado Movie Theater Massacre
Finally, we have a couple who picked the worst possible time and place to go to a movie: They were present at the notorious theater massacre carried out by James Holmes in July 2012. A dozen people died in the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting. Eugene and Kirstin were among 70 who were injured but survived the massacre, but their story is unique for one awesome reason.
The couple were attending the midnight screening after Eugene’s 12-hour shift at work, and as such, he fell asleep during the previews. As he woke, Holmes entered through the exit door, a mere three meters (10 ft) or so away. Eugene saw the outline of his gun against the movie screen, and knew there was about to be big trouble. Then the tear gas canister came, and the shooting started.
Eugene, of course, pushed Kirstin under the chairs and wedged himself between her and the wildly firing gunman, which we assume any of our male readers would also do. He watched as bullets sprayed about, he says he saw “pieces of flesh fly,” and then he took one in the hip and another in the knee. Then he heard the gun click and figured this was their chance to make a run for it. They dragged themselves out the door as Holmes reloaded, locking eyes with Eugene briefly as he did. The bullet in Eugene’s hip was too dangerous to remove, and it took months of physical therapy for him to regain use of his leg, but the couple was able to turn one of the most harrowing experiences imaginable into a positive. Eugene proposed in April 2013, and they were married on July 20—a year to the day after the shooting.
Mike Floorwalker”s actual name is Jason, and he lives in the Boulder, Colorado area with his wife Stacey. He enjoys loud rock music, cooking and making lists.